The Thought Collector

by Anel Viz

I

We’d been talking for barely ten minutes when he said it. For reasons which will soon become abundantly clear, I cannot remember what we were talking about. I suppose, when you get right down to it, we had been talking about nothing, one of those idle conversations that pop up between two people who happen to be sharing a park bench. The topic doesn’t matter; what matters is that as far as I remember, what he said did not in any way follow from what we were talking about. Out of the blue he up and says in the most matter-of-fact tone imaginable, “You know, I’d really like to have sex with you.”

He caught me totally unprepared. It had never occurred to me to chat him up, nor had I thought he was hitting on me. I didn’t know how to respond. Sex with a stranger—what gay man hasn’t done it one time or another in his life? But you always have some clue. I didn’t exactly hesitate; rather, I discovered my mind had simply gone blank.

“So? How about it?”

“Just give me a moment to collect my thoughts.”

“Take your time.”

This was not a cruisy park. I’d come to read my newspaper, not to look for sex, and I had no clue what could have prompted his remark. Sex with him was about the last thing I had on my mind, so he couldn’t have been reading it, could he? He put it so bluntly, too. It sounded more like an observation than a proposition, not at all your typical pick-up line, and he delivered his follow-up question just as noncommittally, as if it were all the same to him. What do you make of a person like that? I could detect nothing sinister in his manner, but one does have to be careful.

He was pleasant enough and not bad looking, a few years older than myself. Not what I’d call my type, but what the hell? As they say, if he had the place, I had the time. Under different circumstances I might have gone to bed with him. (I’m only speculating on how I would have assessed the situation. As I said, my mind went blank, and I just sat there.)

“So what do you think?”

“I don’t think. I’m trying to collect my thoughts, but it’s as if I didn’t have a thought in my head.”

“That’s because I collected them for you.”

“You what?”

“Collected your thoughts. It’s sort of a hobby. I collect thoughts.”

“You collected my thoughts? You collected MY thoughts?”

“Yes.”

“I want them back!”

“Sorry, finders keepers. Besides, I can’t give them back. I threw them out, all except that bit about the moles. I may hang on to that. The rest was all rubbish, a bunch of pseudo-intellectual gibberish that had nothing to do with me.”

Moles? What kind of moles?—spies? skin blemishes? little burrowing animals? And weren’t they also something from high school chemistry that had to do with weight or mass or some other measurement? Whatever I might have been thinking, it sounded too trivial to bother insisting he return it, even on principle. He’d probably made it all up, anyway.

“It was very rude of you,” he went on, “letting your mind wander like that.”

“You go picking my brain—no, pickpocketing my brain—and you accuse me of rudeness?”

“Oh come now! Lots of people are willing to share their thoughts.”

“This isn’t sharing. This is theft!”

“Well, if that’s how you’re going to be about it. Here.” He reached into his pocket and handed me a coin.

“What’s that?”

“A penny. For your thoughts.”

“This is outrageous!”

“You’re not going to ask for more, are you? I already told you what I think they’re worth.”

“Who are you, anyway? I demand you show me some identification! I’ve half a mind to sue you for theft of intellectual property, and I will, too!”

“Intellectual? Really now, isn’t that an exaggeration? Besides, I’ve paid you. Just for your thoughts, mind you. I don’t pay for sex. Nor do I ask to be paid.”

I was fuming. “You take away my thoughts, rob me of the very essence of my personality, and you expect me to go to bed with you?”

“Why not? You’re in the perfect frame of mind for it. Not calm perhaps, but collected. And without a lot of trivial, self-indulgent thoughts to get in the way, you can become one with your body. It will be a tantric experience.”

“For me maybe, not for you.”

“For me too. I haven’t a thought in my head. That’s why I have to collect them.”

“You mean you throw everybody’s thoughts away?”

“Yes. I hardly ever come across a thought worth keeping. Unlike most collectors, I hate clutter. It’s amazing, what nonsense goes through most people’s heads.”

“You… you’re nothing but a psychic voyeur!”

“Admit it,” he prompted. “You’re intrigued.”

“I admit nothing of the sort!”

“There you go letting your intellect take over. You’re resisting me.”

“You’re damn straight I’m resisting you!”

“You shouldn’t, you know. Not if you want the sex to be good.”

“What sex?”

“The sex we’re going to have together.”

I stared at him, but couldn’t stare him down. He just returned my gaze, not even blinking. I got up and walked away.

* * * * *

Toward ten o’clock that night I got to feeling horny, so I headed for one of my favorite bars, walked up to someone at random and said in the most casual tone of voice I could muster, “You know, I’d really like to have sex with you.”

“Fuck you,” he answered.

I took my beer to an empty table and sat down. That’s what I should have told the thought collector. In a sense I had, just not soon enough. But he’d flustered me, and my mind was a blank.

A slight, mousy-looking man, not my type, came up to my table. “Travis, isn’t it?” he said.

“Do I know you?”

The man looked crestfallen. “Don’t you remember? It’s only been a week.”

This was embarrassing. “Did we have sex or something?”

“Don’t I wish! No, last week… at this very table… with the moles. You can’t have forgotten that!”

“Sorry, but I’m afraid I have. I don’t remember much of anything. I had what you might call a mind-emptying experience this afternoon.”

“I don’t have that problem. My memory’s like a steel trap.” He shuddered. “If you’ll pardon the expression.”

“Please, sit down…” I paused, waiting for him to fill in his name.

“Mel.”

We shook hands. His grip was flabby, his uncallused hand broad and his fingers stubby, his nails filed almost to a point.

“Sit down, Mel. Please tell me about it. Anything that might jar my memory would help, especially if it’s about moles.”

He sat in the chair across from me. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you much. I got here late, after the test. You were denying it left and right.”

“Denying what?”

“That you’re a mole.”

“A mole? Is this some kind of spy ring?”

He found the question very funny. The answer he gave was interrupted by full-bellied laughter. “Spies? Us? You must be kidding!

“You’re saying I’m a mole?” I asked angrily.

“Maybe you aren’t. You don’t look like one, and, as I said, I got here after the test.”

“Jesus! Is everyone I run into today going to turn out to be a nut case? What have I done to deserve this? Moles, thought collectors… What next?”

He stood up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. You’re the one who asked.”

“No, don’t go. I didn’t mean you personally. This has been a nerve-racking, off-the-wall day for me. I feel completely discombobulated. I could use someone to talk to. But please, not about moles.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. Let me buy you a drink.”

Mel’s face lit up and he sat down. I signaled the waiter.

Mel proved to be a very interesting individual—witty, open-minded, knowledgeable, and eventually animated. His initial wariness, understandable given my reaction to the business about moles, quickly evaporated, and before long we were feeling quite chummy. I found myself vaguely attracted to him despite his looks. It isn’t rare for me to find unattractive men attractive in the sense that I enjoy their company, but Mel I also found attractive in the physical sense, and, to my surprise, the thought of having sex with him didn’t turn me off.

He couldn’t have looked more different from the young, virile, in-shape kind of guy I usually hook up with. I guessed he was somewhere in his mid-forties, and though not what I would call ugly, he was definitely plain. He squinted, and he kept the lips of his unnaturally small mouth perpetually pursed. His gray, very fine hair, worn in a crew cut and looking almost like down, made his almost bright pink complexion look brighter than it was. He was short, too, not more than five foot four, and, although he wasn’t exactly fat, his body had a plump roundness to it that led me to imagine the muscles of his arms and legs as pulpy soft. And yet I was finding the sexual aura he exuded more irresistible by the minute.

He must have seen it, too, because he fell silent, looked into my eyes, and said with a note of hope in his voice, “Are you looking at me with lust?”

“Lust? I wouldn’t go that far. Interest, certainly.”

“Desire?”

“Yes, that’s fair. I’m definitely turned on.”

“Dare I hope? Because you could have anyone here you choose simply by snapping your fingers.”

I jerked my head toward where the guy who’d told me to fuck off was still standing alone at the bar. “He doesn’t think so.”

“He gave you the brush-off? He isn’t half as good looking as you are.”

“That’s your opinion.”

“It’s everybody’s opinion. Haven’t you noticed how they’ve all been eyeing me jealously?”

I shrugged. “I haven’t been looking at anyone else.”

“So you’ll go home with me?”

I thought about it for a second. “Yeah. Why not?”

He cast me a beaming smile and moved over to sit next to me. I almost regretted having agreed to it, but he didn’t turn the conversation to sex as I expected he would. Our talk touched on just about everything else, though not moles, and we were still talking when they started closing the bar at about a quarter to one.

“Do you have a car?” Mel asked. “I can’t drive. My eyesight.”

“No problem. Live far from here?”

“Not very. On the bus line. I don’t drive, remember? And you will come in, won’t you?” He still didn’t entirely believe me.

I nodded.

“You know,” he said as we got in the car, “I was hoping I’d meet up with you tonight. I don’t come here often. I usually go to The Burrow. I don’t expect you know The Burrow. I’ve never seen you there.”

“Haven’t heard of it. Is it a nice place?”

“I like it. Nothing fancy. Homey, friendly, very quiet. Not much action. I wasn’t expecting much action tonight either. I just wanted to see you again, you understand. I didn’t dream we’d actually hook up.”

He sidled up to me so our shoulders were touching. No more than that; not even a hand on my thigh. His uncertainty was palpable. I made the first move. I gave him a gentle squeeze and kissed him. He threw his arms around me in a clinging hug. “It’s happening! It’s really, really happening!” seemed to emanate from his whole being. I pulled back, turned the key in the ignition, and said, “Let’s go. Which way is it?”

“Uptown. I can’t tell you the quickest way. I only know the route the bus takes.”

“Just give me the address and I’ll find it.”

It had been a most unusual kiss—I had never had another quite like it. A tight, greedy sucking of the tongue that reminded me of chewing. It sounds unpleasant, but it wasn’t. It made me curious to discover what no-holds-barred sex with him would be like. Anticipation, apprehension and excitement came together in a titillating blend I have never experienced with a first-time partner. I wanted it more than ever.

Mel lived in the basement of a brownstone, the entrance on the outside and set in a well under the front stairs. There was a spiked iron fence around it he had to open with a key, another iron gate to unlock that ran from the ground to the bottom of the steps above, and last the double-locked front door in a recess behind that. His apartment, a maze of dim, tunnel-like corridors, had a faintly musty smell to it. We hung our coats on wall hooks by the entrance. He led me to the kitchen for a late night snack, and from there to another hallway and on to his bedroom.

We kicked off our shoes and socks and took off our shirts. “I expect you’ll want to wash up first,” he said. “Here, you can use these slippers. Do you want a robe, too?”

“No, I won’t need one.”

“Come with me. I’ll show you the bathroom.”

The bathroom was off another hall hidden behind a door along the central corridor. He stopped at a linen closet on our way to give me a washrag and two towels.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if you have trouble finding your way back. Call if you get lost. You won’t have to yell loud; the place is smaller than it looks. Feel free to use the bath or the shower. There’s a new toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.”

A long, hot soak in his bathtub tempted me. It was enormous, long enough to stretch out in, one of those deep porcelain tubs perched on legs like the paws of an animal, in this case something more delicate than the traditional lion. A pussycat?

I settled for a shower. There was plenty of hot water. I was done in under five minutes, but it completely steamed up the windowless room.

I wrapped the larger towel around my waist, draped my clothes over my arm, and set out in the dark to find his bedroom. I found my senses of hearing and smell heightened, but I had no experience using them and couldn’t tell which way to turn.

I called for him. I could hear his footsteps in some other hallway.

“Where are you?” he called.

“I wish I knew,” I answered.

A door opened, the light flicked on, and there was Mel in a gray plush bathrobe and gray suede slippers. He looked admiringly at my bare chest, arms and legs.

“Oh, how lovely!”

“Please, you’re embarrassing me.”

You’re embarrassed? Do you know how nervous I am to think you’ll see what I look like?”

“It won’t matter. In fact, I find you rather cuddly looking.”

“You like to cuddle? Good, me too. Come, I’ll get you to the bedroom.”

He watched me as I folded my clothes and laid them on a chair. He was obviously dying to see all of me, but for some reason—I’m not at all modest, as a rule—I felt shy and self-conscious under his gaze.

I made an effort and reached to unwrap the towel.

“No,” he said, “you don’t have to. I can wait. I’ll take my shower now. You get naked and wait for me under the covers. Turn off the lights. I don’t want you to see me before… before we…” He left his sentence unfinished. “And I want to discover you by touch,” he added.

Lying naked in the pitch black, his bed warm, the sheets soft and newly laundered, I dimly heard the shower running and, after a while, the sound of his feet along the corridors, the door quietly opening, and him slipping into bed beside me. His skin was like velvet. He nuzzled into me, breathing in my aroma. His scent was irresistibly erotic. Had I been responding to that all along? It was all so strange that I felt the need to say something.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way, Mel,” I said, “but I don’t understand what’s happening. You’re not at all my type.”

He immediately pulled away. “Sorry. I should have known it was too good to be true.”

“No, don’t stop. That isn’t what I meant. I know the kind of guy I usually go for, and you couldn’t be more different, but I can’t begin to tell you how much you turn me on. I can’t explain it.”

“Is that all you want—an explanation?” He pressed himself against me and blew in my ear. “It must be the pheromones,” he whispered. “There’s no doubt in my mind that you have a teeny bit of mole tucked away somewhere inside you, even if you don’t look it.”

“And I’m just as certain there isn’t. But I know one mole man I very much want to make love to, and I don’t care what the reason is.”

He kissed my ear and cooed, “Aren’t you sweet?” Then he went back to pleasuring me, and I to enjoying it. For someone who must not have had many opportunities to have sex, he was very talented.

He ran his soft face over my stomach, lower and lower. He touched the tip of his tongue to the tip of my penis and moaned. I moaned, too, and there began an unforgettable, but all-too-soon forgotten night of joyous, uninterrupted lovemaking.

 

II

I awoke first, the two of us rolled into a cozy ball like nesting squirrels. I thought back on our night together and tried, in vain, to count my orgasms. He was not well endowed by any standards, but he gave of himself unstintingly, and what he lacked in equipment he made up for in enthusiasm. With unfailing instinct he had responded to every twitch, every shudder, every sigh I emitted, and his miniature hardness was as inflexible as bone. I felt replete, my body relaxed, my soul ineffably tender. Although he had assured me again and again it was the best sex he’d ever had, I thought there was no way I could have given him as much pleasure.

The gray morning light seeped into the room through a small window close to the ceiling, three times as long as it was high. Carefully, so as not to wake him, I lifted the covers to see what his nakedness looked like.

It was more or less how I had imagined it when he came over to my table the night before in the bar, yet nothing like what I anticipated, because he was built like no man I had ever seen. For one, he had no waist to speak of. In shape his body resembled a single, elongated bubble that billowed gradually out from his shoulders, widest between his navel and where his buttocks ended, then tapering back to the of bottom his thighs. It gave the impression that his legs started at the knee, so they appeared stubby and foreshortened by comparison. I knew from having touched him the night before this expanse of flesh was soft and yielding, and the bones below it delicate and frail. Except for his hairless belly and the thick mat above his groin, his body was covered in fine, short, almost invisible hairs, like the arms of an adolescent.

And yet I thought him beautiful. I bent over and kissed him. He opened his eyes, smiled at me, then in a panic he reached for the covers to pull them up and hide himself from my eyes.

I stopped him. “I like what I see.”

“Do you? I like what I see, too. Much, much more.”

I would have loved to take a bath with him in that big tub, but I couldn’t stay, not even for the breakfast he promised to make me. I had to work that day. I’d be late enough as it was.

He misinterpreted my haste. “Will I see you again?” he asked.

“Definitely.”

“Then take my phone number.” He tore off a scrap of paper, wrote ‘MEL’ in block capitals and scribbled a number below it. I stuffed it into my wallet.

“I won’t call you, won’t go looking for you,” he said, “in case you only said it to be nice. And I won’t hold it against you if don’t call.”

* * * * *

I had every intention of getting in touch with him soon, but my first order of business was to uncover the mystery of the moles. I wasn’t looking for someone who could tell me about them, I wanted to know what I knew already, that is, what I had once known. I’d find the thought collector and get my memories back, wring them out of him— physically, if it came to that. But I didn’t even know his name.

I returned to the park where I’d met him, several times, and eventually I found him. Not on the same bench—on another, at the bottom of a grassy slope on the far side of the park. He looked up as I walked down the hill toward him, and I felt my head empty little by little till I had no memories left except our first encounter and a vague feeling there was something important I had to get back from him, something to do with moles, of all things.

“You’re back. I thought I’d be seeing you again soon,” he said, looking smug.

“I want to know what you know that I knew about moles.”

“Excuse me?”

“What I was thinking about moles the other day when you stole my thoughts.”

“You’re not going to start with that stealing bit again, are you? I didn’t steal them; I merely gathered them up. One’s passing thoughts aren’t all that important. Believe me, it doesn’t matter if I take them off your mind. As for the part about moles, you weren’t exactly hanging on to it.”

“So you remember the moles? You haven’t discarded it?”

“That’s very special, something I mean to retain. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am, though. I thought you’d come looking for me to go to bed with me.”

“Dream on!”

“So you’ll have sex with a mole but not with me,” he said peevishly. “That isn’t very flattering!”

“Sex with a mole? A mole the animal?” He nodded, a big grin on his face. “Are you saying I had sex with a mole?”

“There! Aren’t you happy you don’t remember a thing?”

I was appalled. I didn’t want to remember. On the other hand, I had to know.

I screamed, I pleaded. “You can’t do this to me! It’s cruel! I have to find out! I’ll give you anything to get that memory back! I’ll… I’ll… I’ll sleep with you if I have to!”

“Sorry, but I never pay for sex.”

“It wouldn’t count as paying. What you sucked out of my brain was mine to begin with.”

The man pulled back his upper lip and wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Sucked out of your brain? How nauseating! Do you think I’m some kind of zombie? Your thoughts were out there for the taking, just floating around in the air after they seeped out of your head, and I snatched them up.”

“Then think of it as a trade,” I argued. “What you want for what I want. What is it you want, exactly?”

“I told you last time, the first words I spoke to you.”

“I remember. You really want to have sex with me. What kind of sex?”

“Gay sex, obviously.”

“What kind of gay sex?”

“Oh, that. I’m a top.”

“Okay then. You get my ass and I get my thoughts back.”

“About the moles, only about the moles. I can’t help you with the rest. I threw them out while I was sorting through the lot.”

“All I care about is the moles. Is it a deal?”

“All right, I’m game. Your place or mine?”

“Wherever.”

“Now?”

“The sooner the better,” I said.

He stood up to come with me. I had second thoughts. “No, make it your place. Who can tell what thoughts I have floating around my apartment, thoughts I want to keep that you could sweep up and take with you.”

“Very wise of you. I agree. Really important thoughts are best left at home.”

“If you have any private thoughts clinging to your walls, they’re perfectly safe from me. I’m no mind reader.”

“That’s obvious,” he said with a little sneer. “If you were, you’d know where I live.”

“Is it far?”

“Not at all. Just across from the park.”

The thought collector hadn’t exaggerated when he said he didn’t like clutter. His large apartment was nearly empty, not a stick of furniture in the living room: the counter separating it from the kitchen served as a table and the bar stool next to it was his only chair. The bedroom had only a pillowless king-sized bed covered with a light quilt, one or two outfits hanging in the open closet, a tiny two-drawer dresser, and above it a wall mirror nearly four times its size in which the barrenness of the room echoed into infinity.

“Well, get undressed. You can leave your clothes on the floor. Neatly.”

I slowly removed my clothes while he leaned against the wall watching me intently. When I had nothing left on but my underwear, he said, “This will have to be bareback; I don’t have any condoms. Don’t believe in them.”

“I do—both believe in them and have a pack in my wallet.”

“No bareback, no memory.”

“No memory, no fuck,” I insisted. “I’m already putting out more than I think is good for me. I’ll put it on you myself, too, to be sure, and I’ll be watching in the mirror to make sure it stays there. You have lube, at least?”

“That I have.”

I bent down and reached into my pants pocket to retrieve my wallet. “Okay,” I told him. “Drop ’em so I can put this on you.”

“You first. The boxers.”

I took them off. The man slipped out of his trousers but kept his shirt on. I fondled him to get him hard and rolled the condom over his shaft.

“We’ll have to do it doggie style if you want to keep an eye on the mirror,” the thought collector said. “Up on the bed and get on your hands and knees.”

I clenched my teeth, anticipating a brutal thrust, but he took me carefully, pausing even before I was aware of any discomfort. Of course, even the slightest electrical impulse flew out of my brain straight into his head before it had time to register, a phenomenon that also took away whatever pleasure I might have derived from our coupling. The sensations of both topping and bottoming were reserved entirely for the thought collector. Feeling literally nothing, I had to content myself with the spectacle of me taking it up the ass reflected in the mirror. That, at least, was a new experience.

It was quickly over with. The thought collector pulled out, laid a resounding slap on my buttocks, turned away, and got into his slacks.

I stayed where I was, humiliated. The full impact of what I’d done stung like the pink palm print on my ass. A worthless piece of information about moles had, for some unknown reason, seemed so vitally important to me that I had prostituted myself to get it. “Okay, you’ve had your fun,” I said. “Now give me my thought back.”

“You should have insisted on getting that first. Careless of you.”

“You bastard! I’ll force it out of you if I have to!”

I grabbed the man by the throat and we fell to the floor. Straddling his chest, choking him, I cried out repeatedly, “Give it over! Give it over!”

His eyes bulging and his face turning purple, the man still shook his head no. Then a high pitched rattle rose in his throat and a white foam formed on his lips. I saw him mouth the words, “You can have it.” But it was too late, the man was dead. The memory came flooding back. It was mine once more, so vivid that I seemed relive both what had happened to me and the “this can’t be for real” feeling I’d had at the time.

* * * * *

I was standing by the counter at my favorite cruising bar. The man sneaked up on me; I didn’t hear him coming. He had a pasty complexion, beady little round eyes, tiny ears that lay tight against his head, and almost no chin to speak of. His skull sloped sharply backward, and his short, fine gray hair covered it like a tight-fitting glove. His long, twitchy nose looked as if it would come to a point and then flared slightly at the tip.

When you’re that funny looking I suppose you need a grabber for a pick-up line. He looked around warily to make sure no one was listening, brought his lips close to my ear and whispered, “You’ve had plastic surgery. I can tell. Your cosmetologist did a fabulous job. Who is he?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You are one of us, aren’t you?”

One of who? He couldn’t have asked to make sure his gaydar was working, not in that bar.

“Well, aren’t you?” The man tapped his nose. “We always recognize one of our kind. We don’t have to see him to know. We don’t all look like me, though none of us are beauties.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Oh, but you’re the exception! I’ve never run into any like us half so good looking. That’s why I asked.”

“Look, I can’t begin to guess what you’re talking about, but if you must know, I had my teeth straightened. Lots of guys do. I take care of my appearance, too. My hair is permed. And I did have a bit of a nose job, to set it back in place after I broke it. Got hit in the face playing baseball. Except for that, I look the same as I did when I came out of my mother. That is, what the genes I was born with would make me look like.”

“See? I was certain you’d had a nose job! He did you proud.”

“She,” I corrected.

He waved his hand dismissively and went on, “No one could tell just by looking at you, not unless they knew what you were. I bet you drink the worm in the tequila bottle too.”

“As a matter of fact, I do. Will you stop talking in riddles? Unless they knew I was what?”

The man glanced around again and beckoned me to put my ear right up against his mouth. “A mole man.”

There was no denying he looked the part. Not that I believed him for a second.

“And are all you mole men gay?” I asked.

He glanced around the bar in alarm. “You can tell I’m gay? Is it that obvious?”

“You’re here, aren’t you? Can you imagine a straight guy coming up to me out of nowhere and complimenting me on my looks? So tell me: Are all you mole men gay?”

We mole men.” He winked. “I’m sure of it now. Are we all gay, you ask? No, not all, but even straight mole men turn to each other for sex sometimes. Pretty often, I’d say. What choice do we have? Molishness is a recessive gene attached to the X-chromosome, and about as rare as genes get. Mole women are more uncommon than female hemophiliacs or bearded ladies.”

“I suppose you only cruise other moles?”

“Please. I only came to ask, not to cruise you. But we’re not exclusive, far from it! Unfortunately we don’t have much luck except with our own sort. I shouldn’t need to be telling you this, but I guess as cute a guy as you could live his whole life and never know he was a moley.”

“I’m sure you’re mistaken. In fact, I know you are.”

He shrugged and fell silent for a while. “No offense intended,” I began, “but are mole men still considered… human?”

“No offense taken. Yes, very much so. It’s just a teeny mutation.”

“And is it confined to one segment of the population?”

“I don’t think so. I haven’t met any while traveling abroad, but here in America we find moles of all races and in every ethnic group.”

“Interesting.”

After another short silence, he said in a conspiratorial tone of voice, “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but are you, um… endowed, or do you have a penis of more modest proportions like the rest of us?”

“You’re asking inches?”

He nodded gingerly. I leaned over and whispered what he wanted to know in his ear. His face lit up with delight, and he said, “That big? Really?”

“More or less. It doesn’t reach the same size every time I get hard.”

“I’d give anything to see it, touch it, suck it. No, just seeing it will be enough. Only fools expect to win the lottery.”

“You can give a squeeze through my jeans if you want, but I’m warning you—it’s not hard.”

“May I really?”

It was my turn to shrug. The man hesitated and said, “I ought to introduce myself first, oughtn’t I? You can call me Moe.” He laid a tentative hand on my crotch, rubbed it around to be sure it was resting on my cock and not my balls, gave a gentle squeeze, held on a second or two, and let go.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Even soft you can tell what a monster it must be when it gets angry. I bet it’d hollow out a mole hole in no time flat.”

This had gone on long enough.

“It was nice meeting you,” I said, “but if you don’t mind, I came here to cruise.”

“Of course! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to monopolize you. But before you go, just answer me one question—are you or aren’t you?”

“I already told you I’m not. What difference does it make?”

“You see, I have this bet. Oly—he’s my partner—and I have been watching you from that table wondering ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ Oly says no way, I say yes. That’s why we were staring at you.”

I turned and saw another funny-looking man, younger and sandy blond, at a table in the corner. He didn’t look quite as funny as Moe, but he looked funny enough. He waved timidly.

“You were staring at me? I hadn’t noticed.”

“We have very poor eyesight, you know. You probably do too, if you didn’t notice our staring. How is your eyesight, by the way?”

“Not very good, even with contacts. Never has been.”

“Aha! Another indication I’m right. So, will you come with me?”

“Come where?”

“Over to our table. It’ll only take a second. Please? I have a lot of money riding on this.”

I got down from my stool and strode over to their table, the self-styled mole man trotting along behind me. His partner was funnier looking close up. I leaned over him, bracing my arms on the table, and said, “Look, I don’t know if I am or not, so you’ll just have to call it a draw and call off your bet.”

The man ignored me. “There’s one sure way of telling, isn’t there, Moe?”

I didn’t think I wanted to know what it was, and I said so.

“Nothing you need to worry about, my friend. Just a little blindfold smell and hearing test. It won’t take more than a minute or so. You’ll see. It’s very scientific. We’ll need some control subjects.”

“Hey, anyone here want to join in a little ESP game?” Moe called out.

A couple of men looked up, mildly interested. The bartender laughed. “Testing everyone’s gaydar? I can assure you mine works just fine, and every man here is as queer as a two-and-a-half dollar bill.”

“His gaydar!” Oly muttered under his breath. “That’s got to be the weakest, most unreliable kind of ESP there is. How many men get gay-bashed every year?”

That and your ability to spot another mole, I thought. Unless you made the whole thing up, which I bet you did.

Three guys came over to play, one of whom was less interested in the game than he was in chatting me up.

It was like a child’s game. They blindfolded us, and we had to tell them what they gave us to touch or smell and identify noises and say where in the room they were coming from. For example, they held three glasses of beer up to our noses to see if we could distinguish between them.

“How are we supposed to know that?” one guy asked. “Beer smells like beer.”

“Not the label. One was just poured, another about an hour ago, and the third is a mixture from the bottom of a lot of glasses that have been sitting out God knows how long.”

They all smelled very different, but only two of us got all three right.

For the next three glasses of beer, we had to guess whether they were draught or came from a bottle or a can. I had never paid attention to how the smell of beer varies with the container it’s been in, but I found it easy to tell them apart. None of the others could.

“Don’t we get a taste test?” one guy asked.

“That wouldn’t mean anything,” Oly said. “Things taste the same to you as they do to us.”

I heard loud guffaws. Only I knew what he meant by it.

The touch test was unusual in that they didn’t put the things in our hands. Instead, they placed them by the side of our mouths and rubbed them gently back along one cheek to in front of our ear. I recognized every texture easily; the others did less well. The noises were trickier, but I got them, too.

I had passed with flying colors. The results satisfied Moe and Oly, but as far as I was concerned they hadn’t proven a thing.

“Well, that was fun,” I said with an exaggerated show of lack of enthusiasm. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m heading back to the bar.” And all four of us subjects got up and left.

 

III

I remembered, and the memory appeared sharper than what I saw happening around me: Moe, Oly, the ESP test, my embarrassment and how I’d refused to believe what they said about me. I still didn’t believe it. But I didn’t remember anything about having sex with a mole. That was another memory, not part of our bargain. It had been in the thought collector’s head when I killed him, and it was lost forever, no point pursuing it. I felt cheated; it was what I’d wanted to know most.

I was a murderer. Was there any way of pinning the crime on me, of tracking me down? Had anyone seen us together? A passer-by, a doorman? I didn’t think so. Had I left any fingerprints, touched anything in the apartment? No, nothing. The dead man had turned the knob to let us in; I’d only touched the bedding and my own clothing. They couldn’t get fingerprints off cloth, could they? Had I left my DNA on the sheets? Had I dripped? How could I have? I’d felt nothing. But I might have. There must have been some sensations, even if he took them away from me.

I examined my penis and could find no stickiness, nor could I detect any stains on the bed. And him? Would they be able to tell he’d had sex before he died? Probably, if they autopsied his testicles and prostate, but would they bother if they had no reason to? Some traces of lube remained on his belly, genitals and upper thighs. I got a washrag from the bathroom, wet it, making sure to leave no fingerprints on the sink, and wiped him clean.

Anything else? The condom wrapper and the condom. No one would find the condom; the thought collector had flushed it down the toilet. The wrapper was still where he’d left it on the dresser. I blew it off onto the rug as if making a birthday wish, picked it up, and put it in my pocket. Then I got dressed and, holding the washrag so as not to touch the doorknob, I stealthily left the apartment. I’d toss the rag into the nearest trash can.

Once outside the building, random, disconnected thoughts came rushing into my head, deafening me as if silent noises filled the air. Every time I passed someone a new thought popped up in me, separated from its context and apparently absurd. The thoughts stayed with me, clung to me like dust bunnies as I walked down the street, till I imagined myself looking like Pigpen in the comic strip. And somehow I knew that, wherever they came from, they had left their source forever to attach themselves to me.

“Almost there. I parked just around the corner, halfway down the street.” “Susie goes to the dentist tomorrow.” “Must remember to buy milk.” Meaningless, less than useless to me, but a quart of milk wouldn’t be bought, Susie’s cavities would go unfilled, and someone wouldn’t be able to find his car. The dying thought collector had passed his gift on to me. Gift? Call it a curse! Utter trivia piled up maddeningly in my brain like graffiti on a slum wall, crowding out my own thoughts and leaving my mind wiped clean of everything I needed to know. I couldn’t think straight. Carrying on a coherent conversation seemed an impossibility.

The thought collector had spoken about throwing away the thoughts he didn’t want. How did he do it? Picking up thoughts along the way like a magnet, I fled back to my apartment, shut the door behind me and put my hands over my ears to block the thoughts of others that swirled around me like a desert storm.

I couldn’t stay locked in forever. I had a job, I had to eat, there were errands to be run. In time I got used to the clutter, but I couldn’t concentrate and my work suffered. The only clear thought I had that belonged to me and only to me was the memory of meeting the mole men at the bar and the nagging question whether I had or had not had sex with a moley. I walked around all day bombarded with fragments cut loose from the thoughts of thousands of strangers, and every night I went to bed with a migraine so unbearable I had to unplug the refrigerator to keep my head from bursting apart.

I stepped out of the supermarket one day, fingers crossed that none of the groceries in my bags were from someone else’s shopping list, and found myself face to face with a tall, thin, pale man in his early twenties dressed entirely in black. Suddenly my mind cleared as if it had been sucked clean by an industrial vacuum.

It didn’t last long. Flapping his hands in front of his face as if driving off a swarm of gnats, the man closed his eyes and blew through his mouth, and all the thoughts came tumbling back into my head. Well, maybe not all, but more than I could cope with.

The man looked curiously at me and said, “Shit, dude, did ya rob the Thought Bank or what?”

The Thought Bank? What was he talking about? My bewilderment must have shown in my expression, because he said, “Just joking.” For a moment I assumed there was nothing to it, but then he went on: “I know ya didn’t rob it.”

“Rob the Thought Bank…”

“Ha ha! Sure looks like it, though, don’ it? But honestly, why d’ya hang on to all that crap? What kind of lousy accountant d’ya have anyway? You must shell out a fortune in taxes.”

“Taxes?”

“Yes, ain’t ya never heard about taxing thoughts?”

Was that another stupid joke or was he for real? “Avoiding the thought tax…” I repeated numbly.

“Now ya get the picture! Shelter the damn things! Better yet, invest yer thoughts and build up a little nest egg fer a rainy day.”

“Where would I do that?”

“At the Thought Bank, where else? Put yer thoughts to work fer ya. Don’ hoard ’em like a miser. Share ’em with others and they’ll grow exponentially.”

“I have more than I need already, thank you. They just get in the way.”

“All the more reason to keep ’em in the Thought Bank. Open an account, take out a CD.”

“Wouldn’t that just raise my taxable thoughts?”

“Not while they’re sittin’ in an account, and ya can have the bank automatically roll over the extra thoughts you accrue. Or they can make a charitable donation fer ya and ya get a tax write-off. Don’t yer accountant tell ya nothin’?”

My arms were starting to get tired from holding the shopping bags. “Thanks for the tip,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”

* * * * *

I hurried home and checked Wikipedia to learn more about the Thought Bank.

… a depository for the great thoughts of humanity and their influence on contemporary society. It does not store the ideas of the major philosophers housed and catalogued in the Library of Congress; its currency is what average people think about them and the thoughts they have that depend on their teachings. These are collected by mind readers, who overhear the thoughts of passers-by and unload them at one of its many branch banks. The thoughts they collect are removed from, and no longer available to, the persons who thought them. For this reason, the project has raised many ethical concerns. The list of victims of thought theft is constantly growing and includes many graduate students in philosophy. In other cases collectors have trashed thoughts unsuitable for deposit instead of returning them to their rightful owners.

The main branch was in our city, not two miles from where I lived. I collected my thoughts and went to open an account.

When I got there, I wondered how I had gone so long without noticing the building. Only five stories high and squatter than the skyscrapers around it, it took up a whole city block, an uninterrupted slab of solid concrete plopped down like an enormous windowless bunker in the center of town.

I went up to one of the tellers, who were all dressed in black, like the man who had told me about the Thought Bank. I said I wanted to open an account.

“What kind of account?”

“Some kind of investment account I can use as a shelter from the thought tax and at the same time build up a little mental equity.”

“For that you’ll have to see Mrs. Pensiero, one of our managers. Have a seat and I’ll let her know you’re waiting. It shouldn’t be but a few minutes.

Vanita Pensiero was a tall, slender woman without a trace of color in her face, not even lipstick. She asked me to sit down and explain what kind of investment I had in mind.

“I haven’t thought about it,” I explained. “I have too much on my mind as is.”

Just how large an amount of thoughts did I have at my disposal? Was I worried about liquidity? Was I certain I’d allow myself an adequate flow of thought?

“Thought flow is no problem. Rather, it is the problem. I’m drowning in them. I have more than I can possibly keep track of. Hundreds of thousands. Millions.”

“Then you’ve come to the right place. I suggest you split them up and get a variety of bonds, CDs, thought options, etc. Let’s start with one of our more lucrative CDs. Fill out this form, please. Maximum deposit of ten thousand for a minimum of five years at six and a half percent interest.”

My head was too full to concentrate on the application. I wasn’t able to retrieve the vital stats it asked for. “I can’t,” I said. “There’s too much clutter in my head.”

“Then let me have a look at those thoughts of yours for a moment. I’ll tally them up for you.”

My mind relatively clear, I set to work filling in the form. I was about halfway done when she exclaimed in a loud voice, “Why, these are totally worthless! Just a lot of junk thoughts, with nothing substantial to underwrite any of them. Do you expect us to turn empty thoughts into viable securities?”

“I don’t understand.”

“We couldn’t palm this stuff off anywhere even if we pretended there was something behind it. We’re not allowed to hedge our thoughts; we have to abide by regulations. We’re not an ideational brokerage firm.”

“But…”

“What would you have us do, glut the thought market with baseless, half-baked brain farts? Isn’t Hegel bad enough?”

Hegel? Just dealing with everyday, mundane thoughts had completely overwhelmed me. “I don’t see what Hegel has to do with any of this,” I protested.

“Schopenhauer, then, or Kierkegaard or Descartes. Aristotle, even. I only used Hegel as an example of one of the major international dealers in ideas on whom the whole world’s thought economy depends. Can you imagine what would happen if one of those giants went under from dealing in cheap notions with absolutely nothing to back them up?”

She was on a roll; there was no stopping her. She utterly intimidated me. She went on and on, glaring at me all the while, her voice getting louder with every sentence as I sank deeper and deeper into my chair.

“We are the leading thought bank in the most powerful nation on earth,” she pontificated. “Yet for the last quarter century we’ve imported more ideas than we export to other countries. We’ve built up a staggering intellectual debt, and Lord only knows how we’ll ever be able to pay it off with fresh ideas. Have you seen our high school test scores? Can you imagine the shock waves that would rattle the globe if word got out we were intellectually bankrupt?”

“Maybe the government could step in.”

“You mean a bailout? Are you suggesting we fill our vaults with the moronic schemes of self-serving air-head politicians as collateral for the thoughts of history’s most brilliant minds? Do you honestly think what comes out of Washington has a nano-ounce more value than the twaddle you’re trying to pawn off on us? I’d like to know where you picked up this load of over-inflated, penny-ante dreck.”

“I’m sort of a collector.” I hoped I sounded sufficiently meek and apologetic.

Mrs. Pensiero stared at me, uncomprehending. Then a gleam of recognition came into her eyes. She paused, and her face clouded over. “It was you, wasn’t it?” she said accusingly. “You killed Mr. Chauncey.”

“Who’s Mr. Chauncey?” I asked innocently. But I didn’t need to ask.

“You’ll pay for this, you son of bitch!” she hissed.

I jumped to my feet, knocking my chair over behind me. It landed with a crash, and I rushed out of the bank. “We’ll get you!” she yelled after me. “You won’t get away with it! You can’t escape from us!”

Surprisingly, nobody pursued me. I took refuge in my apartment. I had to leave town soon, maybe get a new identity. They’d be sending the Thought Police out to get me, I knew that, but for a little while I’d be safe, I couldn’t tell how long. It would take time to track me down. I sat on my bed, overcome with despair. How could anyone have such rotten luck? Yet in some ways I had been lucky. I thought about Mrs. Pensiero’s remark about the intellectual giants who dealt in great ideas. What if I had encountered some amateur street corner philosopher? It would have fried my brain! Kierkegaard, Descartes! They think, therefore I am. A basket case—that’s what I was.

Then it hit me. I’d left it all on the application I’d started filling out—name, address, email, home phone, work number, employer, Social Security number, driver’s license, date of birth, everything, even my mother’s fucking maiden name. They might burst in any minute.

There wasn’t even time to pack my bags, and I didn’t dare use my credit cards or even take my own car. And where could I hide out? My thoughts—other people’s thoughts, that is—would give me away. How close did they have to be to pick up what was on my mind?

I checked my wallet to see if I had enough cash to last at least a day or two. There, tucked away in a batch of bills was a forgotten folded scrap of paper with the name Mel and a phone number written on it. I had no idea who Mel was or when I’d put it there, but it looked like a possible lifeline.

I called.

“Hello?”

“Hello. Is this Mel?”

“Yes, I’m Mel. Who are you?”

“My name is Travis. I’m not sure I know you.”

“Travis! I’d just about given up hearing from you. What happened? Did you lose my number or something? And what you do mean you’re not sure you know me?”

“Your number is just about the only thing I didn’t lose. My head is stuffed full of garbage and my own memory is just about gone.”

“Sounds like what you said the last time we ran into each other. I didn’t ask for details then, but…”

“Don’t ask for them now either, not over the phone. Take my word for it, about the only thing I remember that has to do with myself is an evening I spent with a batch of mole men at a bar a few weeks back. I know that doesn’t make any sense.”

“What doesn’t make any sense is that last time I saw you that was the only thing you couldn’t remember. But then you ought to remember me, too. That’s where we met.”

“I only got back the mole part. It stops after the test. There’s no Mel in what I remember.”

“I got to the bar late. I had a date to meet a couple of my mole buddies there, but I got held up.”

So Mel was a mole.

“Travis? Travis? Are you still there?”

“Yes, I’m here. Tell me… this is kind of an embarrassing question, but… have we ever had sex?”

* * * * *

Mel agreed to let me lie low at his place for a few days. “Stay as long as you want,” he said.

“You may change your tune when you find out what kind of trouble I’m in.”

I threw together a couple of changes of clothes and the basic toiletries, then went out and hailed a cab. The drive to Mel’s apartment was excruciating. Not only did I have my own troubles to think about and a ton of other people’s thoughts clogging my brain, but the cab driver alone could have filled up every unused synapse in my cerebral cortex. He kept up an uninterrupted flow of meaningless monologue, constantly jumping from subject to subject while his thoughts raced on in every direction at once, none of what he was thinking in the least related to what he was saying. At the same time he had a talk show blaring over the car radio and kept exchanging pointless remarks over a two-way radio with someone who worked at the cab company office. What’s more, I had to shoulder the responsibility to get us where we wanted to go because when I tried giving him directions, “Turn left at the next light” would immediately go flying out of his head and back into mine. And for the whole drive I couldn’t stop wondering if I’d have to have sex with a mole again and could I bring myself to go through with it and what it would feel like and how many times I’d have to do it. By the time the driver dropped me off I was completely frazzled.

Mel was waiting for me outside his brownstone. He hurried me down the stairs and into his apartment, locking all the doors behind us. “Do you remember me now?” he asked.

“I’m afraid not.”

“Then do you still find me attractive? If you don’t, don’t worry about it. I won’t ask you to do anything you don’t want to. You can have your own bed. I’ll put you up in the guest room.”

“I can’t think about that now.”

I looked around. I felt somehow safe from the outside world in his tunnel-like home. “This looks like a good place to hide,” I said.

“Hide from whom? Will you tell me what this is all about?”

“Not here. Not this close to the door.”

“Okay. We’ll go to my bedroom.”

A few twists and turns brought us to our destination. He asked if I recognized the room. I couldn’t remember having been there.

“How sad! I’ll never forget the night we spent here together.”

“There’ll be others. I’m afraid to sleep alone. But I can’t promise we’ll…”

“You can trust me. I promise I won’t try to seduce you. As if I was capable of that!”

“I do trust you. I have to. I have no one else to turn to, as far as I can remember.”

“You had better tell me everything and begin from the beginning. I don’t know what danger I’m facing having you here.”

“It’s me they’re after. You can always pretend you don’t know anything about it, that I’m just a friend you’ve put up for a few days because… Tell them I said one of the pipes burst in my building. You won’t be in danger unless they collect your thoughts too.”

“Collect my thoughts? What’s that supposed to mean? And pretend I don’t know anything about what?”

I’d tried to avoid saying it. Now I blurted it out. “That I killed Chauncey.”

He looked at me, stunned. “You killed someone?”

I told him as much of my story as I remembered from my first meeting with the thought collector up to the moment I found his number in my wallet.

Mel shook his head. “The Thought Police! And here I thought it was just an expression! I don’t know what I can do to help. But maybe you’re right. Maybe they won’t be able to ferret you out in my little underground dwelling.”

“I’ll have to emerge eventually, you know, and then they’ll catch me unless we think of something. But I feel better already. I’m not picking up any thoughts from the world outside, and my head’s starting to clear a little. There’s room now for that thought he stole from me the second time.”

“About having sex with a mole?”

“Yes, that. I take it you were the mole.”

“I was. But I can only tell you what went on from my point of view. Yours may have been quite different.”

I nodded. He gave me a short run-down of our night of lovemaking in terms so glowing I knew I had to take his version with a grain of salt. He interrupted himself every couple of sentences. “I swear I’m not telling you this to convince you to repeat the experience.”

The more he talked, however, the more I felt tempted to, and not because of what he said. Something about him turned me on. Not his looks—something I couldn’t put my finger on. But I said nothing, in case I changed my mind later.

I did feel safe there with him, though, and if people’s thoughts couldn’t reach me, there was a good chance mine wouldn’t reach my pursuers. I felt peaceful, and all at once I understood why. An idea struck me, one of my own for a change.

“I’m not picking up any of your thoughts, Mel. I can’t tell what you’re thinking.”

“That could be because my thoughts aren’t one hundred percent human. Maybe my molishness dilutes them or prevents the unconscious receptors in your brain from recognizing them as thoughts.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, have you ever collected any animal thoughts? Can you remember when you were out in the street ever having a thought like ‘Hmmm… I’m gonna check out that fire hydrant’?”

“I can’t say I have.”

“See? And I bet you never picked up any moley thoughts either. But we’re out there.”

“But doesn’t that prove I’m not a mole, whatever the results of that blindfold test?”

“Not necessarily. There’s molishness in you, all right; not very strong, but I can sense it. Mole-dar is nothing like the ESP thought collectors must have, but it’s surer than gaydar any day. That you collect thoughts shows that in you the human element predominates. Hence your ravishing good looks. Hey, that gives me an idea!”

“You’ll have to tell me what it is. Yours is one brain I can’t pick.”

“If we can find a way to bring your latent molishness to the surface, maybe, just maybe, we can cure this involuntary thought-collecting that’s been ailing you. You’d have to create a new identity for yourself. Easy, if becoming more molish also changes your appearance. There are other advantages. If a mole’s thoughts can’t be collected, maybe your memories will come back to you in time.”

“And how do you propose we go about making me molier?”

“Through contact with me.” He blushed. “Close, prolonged contact.”

“Sexual contact. Wouldn’t that be taking advantage of you?”

“I suppose so, if you were only doing it to escape the Thought Police.”

“That wouldn’t be my only reason,” I admitted. “It wouldn’t even be my primary reason.”

“Please don’t lie to me,” he pleaded. “Not about this.”

“How can I prove to you I’m not lying?”

“When we make love, I’ll know. But, please, don’t have sex with me if you don’t really mean it. I’ll be able to tell if you’re faking it, and it will hurt too much.”

I moved closer to him and put an arm around his shoulder. “The last thing I want to do is hurt you, Mel.”

I kissed him, and we began to make out.

We would go all the way, I knew. I wondered if I would recapture our first night together when we made love. I wondered even more how I would like living as a mole. But about that I had no choice.

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